Last week, Missouri state Sen. Brad Lager faced the wrath of nearly 100 angry people who were gathered at the firehouse on Savannah, Missouri's main drag. The residents of Savannah -- a rural, bedroom community just north of St. Joseph -- hurled questions at the lawmaker concerning his bill that would significantly impact property owners' rights to sue the operators of massive, factory hog-feeding operations -- hog farms with a reputation for depressing local property values and their neighbors' quality of life.
The Savannah residents' outrage is more urgent now that a new CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is in the development phase, just two miles outside of town. It would house up to 9,600 hogs. Do the people of Savannah think this plan stinks? You bet your bacon-eating ass they do.
Lager asked the townspeople why they hadn't exhausted other options
for stopping the proposed CAFO outside Savannah. How about
filing an injunction?
A man protested -- the retirees and
middle-class workers in the crowd don't have money for lawyers and
injunctions, he said. "That's what I look to my elected representatives
Lager suggested that the people ask the American Farm Bureau for support against
the CAFO. Loud snorts and guffaws erupted from the audience. "Bought and
paid for!" some onlookers shouted. The Farm Bureau, someone argued, has
been corrupted by corporate interests like Smithfield Foods.
"Seven dollars a hog," grumbled Savannah resident Ron Clark. "That's what this is all about."
Clark was alluding to a statistic Lager used to open the meeting. Pork-producing giants like Smithfield Foods, whose factory farm operations are a major presence in northern Missouri, claim that it costs $7 more to raise a hog in Missouri than in hog-friendlier states. The additional cost, Smithfield whines, is due to damages awarded to plaintiffs in nuisance lawsuits. In one such lawsuit last year, a jury found in favor of 15 family farmers living near a Smithfield-owned CAFO in Berlin, Missouri, and slapped the meat-maker with an $11 million dollar judgment.
Lager's proposed legislation would cushion Smithfield from such miserable courtroom defeats by severely limiting the damages that plaintiffs can collect and ending successive lawsuits.
Smithfield's representatives cite the $7-a-hog figure and have threatened to pull out of Missouri altogether, as they did after last year's $11 million dollar defeat. Three thousand jobs in northern Missouri are at stake, Lager claims.
"The reality is, no industry can sustain lawsuits, time and time again," Lager told Savannah's citizenry. "Pigs aren't going to stop stinking. "
They weren't buying it.
"If, when I go home tonight, I find a thief in my house," a man told Lager, "in Missouri, I can use force to protect my property. Your bill is infringing on my right to protect my property. What's the difference between you and that thief in my house?"
The crowd applauded.
Another man stood up and said his family's history in Savannah dated back to 1840. It's a property owner's constitutional right, he said, to ask the courts to make him whole if a company's way of doing business causes him actual inconvenience and physical discomfort. The effect of Lager's legislation, he said, would create private rights of condemnation. He compared it with the government's powers of eminent domain, except that under eminent domain, private property owners are compensated far better than Lager's bill would allow.
Lager argued that hog-farming technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Old CAFOs stink. "I will not stand here and defend those facilities," he said. With more modern facilities, "there is no comparison."
A grad student pointed out -- correctly -- that the innovations in odor-reducing technology are the direct result of litigation. Companies like Smithfield didn't start spending money to reduce the stench of tens of thousands of hogs and their waste until the threat of legal action provided incentive to do so (or, in Smithfield's case, until a consent order from Missouri's attorney general demanded it).
A shaky-voiced woman stood up and apologized for sounding cynical before telling Lager, "It just feels like we're being run over. We're just little people. This stinks of big business."
Another observer asked Lager whether it was true that Smithfield donated $15,000 to his re-election campaign last November. Lager confirmed it.
At their angriest, small-town Savannah folks don't forget their manners. "How many pieces of celery did they pay you to sell us out?" a man exclaimed. Just as quickly, he apologized to the lawmaker.
But it's Lager who should have been apologizing. He's inviting a toxic, multi-billion-dollar polluter to steamroll through northern Missouri, stomping out the peaceful, country communities in its path.